Reading Andrew Delbanco’s “College” – What Is Liberal Education?

College by Andrew DelbancoThis fall’s first-year common reading at Vanderbilt is College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco. I’m reading the book this summer so that I can participate in campus conversations about it this fall–and because we selected it for this month’s Center for Teaching reading circle, organized by my colleague Nancy Chick. It’s less than 200 pages, and so I thought I might read quickly through it in time for this week’s reading circle discussion. However, Delbanco’s arguments are too interesting for speed reading! Instead, I’m taking my time with it (I’m currently on Chapter 3) and engaging others in conversation about Delbanco’s arguments. You can see some of those conversations in this collection of tweets, and I’m hoping to have more here on the blog as I continue reading and thinking out loud.

Delbanco describes his reason for writing College in the preface to the paperback edition. Given the “upheaval” facing higher education (page xiii),

“…one thing seems certain: traditional colleges will have to do more with less. That means concentrating on their core mission, which, in turn, means that they must have a clear sense of what, in fact, that mission has been. This book is my effort to answer that question.”

What does Delbanco see as the core mission of colleges? It’s threefold:

  1. Colleges should provide opportunities for all students, regardless of background, to discover and pursue their passions.
  2. A college classroom is a “rehearsal space for democracy,” where students learn to engage with different points of view.
  3. College is about more than job training; “it has been, at its best, about helping young people prepare for lives of meaning and purpose” (p. xiv).

This mission gives a sense of the definition and defense of a liberal education that Delbanco provides in College. I find both the definition and defense compelling, but also a little lacking. One reason, I think, is that I’ve spent 15 of my 19 years in higher education at universities, not colleges. Delbanco draws a sharp distinction between these two types of institutions: Colleges are about “transmitting knowledge of and from the past” to students to prepare them for the future, while universities focus on research by faculty and graduate students “with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past” (p. 2).

Past / FutureAlthough Delbanco gestures to colleges’ role in preparing students for their futures in Chapters 1 and 2, he largely focuses on how colleges help students grapple with the past. For instance, in a compelling passage on page 11, Delbanco writes, “Teaching at its best can be a generative act, one of the ways by which human beings try to cheat death–by giving witness to the next generation so that what we have learned in our own lives won’t die.” He states that one of the most important challenges facing colleges today is the “collapse of consensus about what students should know” (p. 5), and then shares what he thinks students should know. After referencing a list of “constitutive ideas of Western culture” (individual freedom, democratic government, human rights, regulation of markets, modern scientific truth, and so on) from Anthony Kronman’s book Education’s End, Delbanco writes on page 31,

“Anyone who earns a BA from a reputable college out to understand something about the genealogy of these ideas and practices, about the historical processes from which they have emerged, the tragic cost when societies fail to defend them, and about alternative ideas both within the Western tradition and outside it.”

These are fine goals, although reasonable people might disagree as to whether Delbanco’s ought-to-understands should be “the” core of a liberal education. My point here is this is a vision of undergraduate education that looks mainly to the past.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with helping students make sense of the past and how it has shaped their present, but I see a liberal education as preparing students to solve problems of the future–problems of interest to the students and problems facing our society. This is, perhaps, where my experience in a university setting shapes how I think about undergraduate education. Yes, universities are about creating new knowledge, but I think that they are also about involving students in that knowledge creation process and equipping those students to confront the challenges of the present and future.

I’ve heard Tim McNamara, Vanderbilt’s Vice Provost for Faculty and International Affairs, say many times that what distinguishes a university from a research institute is that a university has an educational mission. More recently, Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, Nick Zeppos, has challenged our community to consider what a residential education looks like at a research university. If, as Delbanco seems to argue, a college education is primarily about helping students make sense of the past, then perhaps a university education is something different, something more forward-looking.

I’m still kicking these ideas around, and I would welcome your input. I should note that Delbanco explores other aspects of liberal education, too, including its ability to help young people finding purpose, meaning, and happiness in life. For instance, he quotes his Columbia University colleague Judith Shapiro speaking to a group of students about the value of college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life” (p. 33).  That’s a forward-looking outcome, and perhaps Delbanco points to the future in more explicit ways in later chapters.

One more quick comment: Thus far, Delbanco hasn’t said much about what might be called “integrative learning,” in which students draw ideas, perspectives, and ways of thinking from multiple disciplines to solve hard problems. Yes, I think a liberal education can help one “enjoy life” (p. 32), but it can also help one become a better problem solver, builder, and creator. Again, perhaps Delbanco says more about this aspect of liberal arts education later in the book.

Image: “but what of now?“, Sara Werne, Flickr (CC)

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